A Star's September Song
01/27/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
THE POSH BEVERLY HILLS FRIARS CLUB sees a gala event nearly every week, but this wedding wasn't going to be an ordinary affair. The first clue was the Army tank positioned just outside. Inside, a color guard in Revolutionary War regalia trooped down the aisle. The canopy for the Jewish service was stitched from military camouflage. The bride, dressed in floor-length peach silk, was 75; the groom, in purple tie and cummerbund, 42. As the new couple sliced their four-tier cake with a military saber, many of the 100 guests couldn't help wondering: Was Martha Raye, the USO grande dame from WWII through Vietnam, suffering at last from battle fatigue?
After all, the septuagenarian comedian, partially paralyzed from a severe stroke in 1990, had met her new husband, Mark Harris, a showbiz promoter with no known credits, only a month before eloping with him to Las Vegas's Golden Nugget Hotel last September. (The Dec. 28 Friars Club remarriage was just for fun.) She had videotaped a new will bequeathing him the bulk of her estimated $2.4 million estate, with her only child, Melodye Condos, 47, receiving—as in previous wills—only $1.
Now Melodye was suing for conservatorship of Raye and her money. And Harris and Raye (whose last gig was as the spokesperson for Polident in the '80s) were further stirring the pot by accusing Bette Midler of using Raye's experiences as a USO entertainer as the basis of the current film For the Boys. But what most worried Raye's friends was the stream of paparazzi shots that showed Harris pushing the frail Raye in her wheelchair to numerous late-night parties.
Sitting up in the master-bedroom waterbed of her rustic Bel Air house on a recent afternoon, Raye, who shows no signs of a mental slowdown, reacts to such concern with her characteristic throaty bluntness. "It's none of their goddamned business," she snaps. Married six times during her performing heyday, from 1937 to 1958—only one of the marriages lasted more than two years—Raye has been single since 1959. "Before Mark I was very lonely," she says. "Life was very puny then. Now my life has some class and intelligence to it." As for charges that he is endangering her health by dragging her out on the town, she says, "I'll never get well if all I do is lie in this bed."
While Raye dozes on and off most of the day, Harris tirelessly seeks publicity for himself and their curious romance. The proud driver of a 1976 Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce, which he says he's owned for six years, Harris says, "I don't want to discuss my assets, but I do have money." Though he claims to possess a sizable inheritance, he was born poor, the son of Max Bleefeld, a Brooklyn house-painter, and his wife, hairdresser Rebecca Glitzer. Obsessed with fame since childhood, Harris, who uses his middle name as his last, took up his mother's trade in his teens "to support my singing career"—which never took off.
Still cutting hair (he fixes Raye's every day), Harris worked for a textile company in New York City for several years. From 1971 to 1983 he was married to Gwenn Susan Husak, with whom he had three daughters, now ages 17, 18 and 20. (Harris has maintained contact with his children since moving to L.A. nine years ago.) He has fathered another daughter, now 4, by an L.A. businesswoman he refuses to name.
In Hollywood Harris cast himself as the Phantom of the Kitchen, cooking up glitzy Sunday brunches in private homes, wearing a sequined apron and rattling rhinestone-covered saucepans. "Everything Liberace did with the piano, I did with pots and pans," he says. He also strove to become a Hollywood and Vegas promoter, with little success. Says one Vegas insider: "He's a hustler, always coming up with a scheme that never quite materializes."
Harris, though, enjoyed nothing but success in his courtship of Raye after meeting her last September through her longtime friend, Vegas comic Bernie Allen, 75. At this point, Allen regrets having made the introduction. "I thought I was dealing with a legitimate agent," Allen says. "I mentioned I was going to visit Martha, and he said, 'I would love to meet her.' " With Raye's approval, Allen invited Harris to drop by. "Before the night was over, he was lying on the bed with Martha, telling her how he was an agent and could get her her own TV show, how he was a hairdresser and would love to fix her hair, how he was the Phantom of the Kitchen and would love to cook for her. In fact," Allen adds, "he cooked for her that very night."
Allen was shocked to hear they had married only a few weeks later—and that he hadn't been invited. "My personal feeling is that he rushed Martha into marriage for his own gain and to further his career," he says. "I don't want him to hurt her."
Harris, however, says it was Raye's idea to marry—and to call in her military buddies for the second ceremony. "I wasn't looking for another relationship," he says.
The sudden dash to the altar is nothing unusual for the headstrong Raye, born Margie Yvonne Reed in Butte, Mont., to the vaudeville team of Pete and Peggy Reed. She joined them onstage at age 3, struck out with her own act at 16 and made her movie debut at 20, with Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range (1936). She went on to appear in more than 20 films, including Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and countless TV and stage shows.
According to TV writer James Magee, Bette Midler visited Raye several times in 1986 to discuss a possible film version of her years as a wartime entertainer. Magee gave Midler a 54-page treatment, written several years before, but the project fell through because Raye's then manager Nick Condos, her husband from 1944 to 1953, was asking an impossible $1 million for the rights. The Midler vehicle, For the Boys, says Harris, resembles Raye's life too closely for coincidence; he says legal papers will be served shortly on Midler and others involved in the film.
Harris and Raye are also battling her long-estranged daughter, who says Raye is mentally incompetent and is suing for guardianship. Melodye has said she lived through a Mommie Dearest childhood in which Raye cut off her pigtails as punishment for spilling juice. Raye in turn calls her daughter "a money-grubber" and adds, "I'm sorry I ever gave birth to her." Melodye, a musicians' union executive living in Burbank, received several hundred thousand dollars from her father's estate after his death in 1988. She is scheduled to meet her mother in court this week.
Constantly at Raye's side—along with her two full-time nurses—Harris says, "I do everything I can to keep her spirits up." During the day he brings her mugs of hot chocolate while she watches TV soaps and occasionally takes her in his Rolls to Baskin-Robbins, where Raye, who has had a sweet tooth since she gave up drinking nearly two years ago, indulges in a strawberry shake.
At home, Harris prepares all Raye's meals and says her favorite is pork chops and tapioca pudding—"the way I make it." He says he shares her waterbed "only occasionally" because she wakes frequently. "I just wish we could have been born at the same time," he says, "so we could get social acceptance, because I really believe that this kind of love is something I'll never feel again."
His devotion has won at least a few supporters. Martha's longtime friend and agent, Ruth Webb, 62, who protested the marriage at first, now believes it has its merits. "Let me just put it this way," she says. "Whatever he is, he is being very loving to Martha. And, well, if he can help himself along the way, so what? If Martha's happy, I'm happy."
For her part, Raye professes contentment. "As long as I have my health and Mark has his," she says, "we'll be okay."
"I know this looks like something out of Sunset Boulevard," says Harris, evoking the film starring Gloria Swanson as the aging, demented movie queen and William Holden as the young, striving writer who moves in with her and ends up facedown in her pool. But, Harris continues confidently, "we don't have a pool, I'm not William Holden, and my wife is not going to shoot me."
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles